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American Indian Artisans Still Make Silver Watch Accessories

ALBUQUERQUE — Someday, Andrew Thomas plans to have a silver watch cuff custom-made in memory of his father. It won’t be an exact reproduction of the one his father wore, he said, but it will reflect the same traditional Diné (Navajo) style, perhaps with nugget turquoise, a touch of coral and some silver appliqué work.

“I’m still designing it in my head,” said Mr. Thomas, 61, who works as a buyer at the Indian Pueblo Store, in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center here.

Mr. Thomas said he owned turquoise-studded bracelets given to him by each of his parents, Frank and Clara Mae Thomas, but the watch cuff (which now belongs to one of his brothers) is something he especially associates with his father. When he sees someone wearing a similar piece, he said in an interview, it takes him back to his upbringing on the Navajo Nation and the life lessons his father taught him.

“As you grow older, you always get reminded of where you’re from,” he added.

The timepiece was a Bulova, Mr. Thomas said: Frank Thomas worked for the Santa Fe Railway for years, driving a truck that transported rail workers to and from their jobs, and the company offered employee discounts on the watches to help keep everything on schedule. Mr. Thomas said he did not know who made the watch cuff, but “it was a perfect fit for my dad, and he was proud of it.”

Nowadays, these types of lavishly decorated watch cuffs or watch bracelets in heavy-gauge silver are mostly sold as vintage pieces or made to order. But some art galleries and shops in the southwestern United States, including the Indian Pueblo Store, still carry a selection of watches adorned with what are called watch tips: two curved pieces of silver attached to either side of the watch case and secured to a manufactured watchband, often made of stainless steel.

Bennard Dallasvuyaoma, a lapidary and silversmith in Albuquerque who belongs to the Hopi and Pima tribes of Arizona, believes that watch tips originated in the 1960s or 1970s, when Native American jewelry was growing in popularity and customers were demanding all sorts of new items.

“Everything came out of a customer’s needs,” he said. “They wanted watch tips, they wanted money clips, they wanted everything that you can imagine in jewelry design.”

Mr. Dallasvuyaoma, 72, said he made many sets of watch tips over the years, most as special orders, but these were becoming increasingly rare. Earlier this year, he finished a set of tips for a customer’s Timex, with a Hopi silver-on-silver overlay design featuring badger claws on one side of the watch face and a design with two arrows on the other. The tips can be attached to either a leather strap or a titanium bracelet, both of which were provided by the customer. Before that order, he said, it had probably been more than a year since he had made a set.

With the advent of smartwatches and the proliferation of watch designs, watch tips are trickier to make now, he said, because it is harder to find the right hardware to attach the metal to the timepiece. And now that many wristwatches are essentially computers, people tend to think more about what a watch can do than what the band looks like, said Mr. Dallasvuyaoma, who wears an Apple Watch.

“The market changes, we change,” he added.

Some Native American jewelers, though, have started venturing into accessories for smartwatches. That is the case with Shane R. Hendren, a Diné silversmith and lifelong rancher whose studio is in a semirural area just south of Albuquerque, where he keeps a few horses, calves and goats.

In the 1990s, Mr. Hendren said, women’s watches were part of his regular inventory; he would buy Japanese timepieces wholesale and then make watchbands out of silver, with turquoise inlay. But he discontinued them when customers turned to cellphones to tell time.

“I’m not going to make something that doesn’t sell. It’s Business 101,” he said. “Now the only ones I make are custom orders.”

Recently, though, he has designed and made half a dozen bands for smartwatches — including a very personal one. His daughter Casey asked him to make it in honor of her older brother and Mr. Hendren’s only son, Cody Hendren, who died in a horse-riding accident three years ago, at age 28.

Ms. Hendren, now 22, said that during her high school summer vacations she would work alongside her brother on ranches across New Mexico. She asked her father to incorporate an image of a bronc rider and the siblings’ shared initials, C.R.H., on the band “so I could have a piece of him with me all the time.”

Two silver panels, curved to fit Ms. Hendren’s wrist, frame the watch and connect to a leather watchband. The initials on one panel and the horse and rider on the other were engraved by hand in gold and overlaid on a decorative background of engraved silver.

“If you really look closely at it and you look at the bronc rider’s face, he’s smiling,” Ms. Hendren said. “And the way that my dad shaped the cowboy hat on the bronc rider is exactly how my brother’s hat used to be shaped.” On the reverse side of the silver pieces, her father engraved messages just for her: “Love 4 Life” on one side and “Live 4 Love” on the other.

Mr. Hendren, 52, has also made other pieces for clients’ smartwatches, including one with faceted sapphires and a peace sign and another showcasing a ranch owner’s brand. Native American watch jewelry may not be as ubiquitous as it once was, he said, but it is hardly obsolete.

“Humans like things that are personalized,” he said. “As long as there’s guys like me that can make something custom, there’s somebody out there who’s going to find me.”

Silver watch cuffs and bracelets entered the repertoire of Southwest Native American jewelry around the 1930s, when the Route 66 highway — which ran from Chicago through Los Angeles — began to attract tourism on a large scale.

“Native American jewelry was starting to be seen outside of just the Southwest region,” said Emerald Tanner of Tanner’s Indian Arts in Gallup, N.M. She and her parents, Joe Sr. and Cindy Tanner, own and operate the family business, following in the footsteps of generations of Tanners who have traded and sold Southwest Native American art since 1872.

For the most part, watches have been “a niche market,” Emerald Tanner said, with interest peaking in the 1970s. During a video interview, she and her father displayed watch jewelry from several eras: an ornate Navajo silver cuff from the 1930s, its timepiece replaced by a large green turquoise stone from the King’s Manassa mine in Colorado; a women’s watch cuff from the late 1950s or early 1960s made by a Zuni Pueblo artist, with 60 hand-cut cabochons of bright-blue Sleeping Beauty Arizona turquoise, each set with its own bezel; and a Zuni his-and-hers set of watch link bracelets from the 1970s showcasing coral, turquoise, jet, mother-of-pearl, malachite, abalone shell, sugilite and lapis lazuli inlaid in geometric patterns.

Over the years, collectors periodically have approached the Tanners, looking for artists who could translate their ideas into jewelry. More than 40 years ago, a collector named R. C. Cannady asked about a watch bracelet, and the Tanners introduced him to a young Diné jeweler named Raymond C. Yazzie, who was doing lapidary work for them at the time.

In separate interviews, Mr. Cannady, Mr. Yazzie and the Tanners talked about the creation of the watch set, which the artist called Realm of the Gods because the pieces were embellished with symbols representing several Native American deities. Some details varied with the teller, but the broad strokes were the same.

Cindy Tanner remembered that Mr. Cannady had come in with some drawings and a long wish list: The bracelet should be 14-karat gold and include turquoise from several different mines, six one-carat diamonds and a gold coin — “and he didn’t want it to be gaudy,” she said.

Mr. Yazzie, now 63, said he was about 17 when he first met Mr. Cannady, and the collector seemed skeptical. “He had this look on his face like, ‘You’re telling me this young kid is going to do a watch bracelet for me?’”

Speaking from his home in LaGrange, Ga., Mr. Cannady, 87, said that he was interested in “something that was truly outstanding and a one-of-a-kind piece,” and he wanted to make sure the artist was willing to take on the responsibility.

Mr. Yazzie was. Over the course of three or four years — with a lot of back-and-forth consultation with Mr. Tanner, according to Mr. Yazzie — the jeweler would make the four pieces, inlaying about 2,000 tiny stones that he had cut and polished. Most of the stones are turquoise, predominantly from the Blue Gem mine in Nevada, though the pieces also have some lapis lazuli and Mediterranean coral.

The watch bracelet is the highlight of the four-piece set, said Mr. Cannady, who described the ensemble as something that “makes everybody else in the room tiptoe.”

In the center of the bracelet, Mr. Cannady said, is a thin gold timepiece set inside a hollowed-out U.S. $20 coin, a design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens known as the double eagle. He declined to give many details about his purchase of the coin watch, but he said he had first heard about it in Switzerland, tracked it down and bought it from a jeweler.

Mr. Cannady, who built an aviation business and traveled the world for decades, said the set was for sale (asking price: $500,000) — and he hoped that the eventual buyer would be as proud to wear it as he has been rather than just locking it away in a vault.

“I have a certain amount of braggadocio built into me,” he said. “Wherever I wanted to stand out, by golly I wore it.”

Mr. Yazzie, for his part, called the set “one of the premier pieces of my life” and marveled that he had been able to produce work like that at such a young age. “Even when I look at it today, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “There’s nothing different I could do.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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